The Power of Community in Building a Sustainable Movement

A conversation with DC-area vegan activists Jamila Anahata, Starr Carrington, Brenda Sanders, and Veronica Velasquez

(clockwise from left) Starr Carrington, Veronica Velasquez, Jamila Anahata, and Brenda Sanders at Thrive Baltimore. Photographed by Heather Sten for LAIKA

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Vegan activism in communities of color in the DMV—the metropolitan area formed by D.C., Maryland, and Virginia—has steadily gained momentum in recent years. Area activists Jamila Anahata, Starr Carrington, Brenda Sanders, and Veronica Velasquez are part of the driving force challenging the myth that veganism is an “affluent white thing.” From holistic wellness to social justice education, community outreach to healing through food, they each have their own approach to vegan advocacy. And collectively, they represent the power of community in creating a lasting movement for change. LAIKA brought the four together for a group discussion to learn how they’re creating cultural connection, making plant-based lifestyles more accessible and inclusive and radically shifting perceptions of what veganism looks like. Note: This interview and photo shoot took place prior to the covid-19 pandemic. The story has been updated to reflect recent developments in the subjects’ lives.


Building Unity

Visibility — simply being proudly Black and vegan — might be the most powerful tool in creating a Black vegan community, according to Washington, D.C.-based Starr Carrington, founder of the nonprofit Fuel the People, a vegan education initiative for Black and Brown folks in the DMV. “When I’m at a cookout with my Black family, I’m unapologetically vegan. When I’m in a vegan environment, I bring my Blackness to the forefront.” Fuel the People has helped locals come together by hosting events like Where Black Meets Green, which helps facilitate relationships between DMV communities of color and Black-owned vegan businesses.

“As somebody who grew up in a low-income Black community and now works in low-income Black communities, a sense of connectedness is the best way to reach people,” says Brenda Sanders, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland and is co-founder of Afro-Vegan Society. “A lot of times, the communities where we work are ignored,” she says. “But it’s even been surprising to me to see that these communities are really enthusiastic about learning more about veganism.” Sanders formerly operated Thrive Baltimore, a plant-based community center; its cornerstone annual program (free, like all programming that Sanders puts on) was the four-week vegan immersion course Plant-Based Jumpstart. Sanders says that she wants what she calls the “lifesaving affirmation” of veganism to be fully accessible to “every single person who needs it.” And during a pandemic that has been disproportionally devastating to Black communities, she pivoted into online events that have been attended by hundreds— like Afro-Vegan Society’s recent Vegan Holiday Cooking Demo Series

Sanders also believes that it’s vital to put an emphasis on culturally-driven celebrations. She co-founded the summer festival Vegan SoulFest six years ago with this mission in mind. Its Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown — a more “hype” take on a traditional competition — brought in a thousand people at last year’s event. This method of vegan advocacy is catching on. “A lot of the events that we innovated here in Baltimore have actually spread out and sort of caught fire in cities all over the country, and even internationally,” she says.

Fellow Baltimore resident Jamila Anahata’s background is in creating consciousness-raising safe spaces to practice Black womxn magic in, like the Third Eye Vision Board parties and Smoke & Chill plant-based potlucks she organized prior to the pandemic. The self-proclaimed metalhead and author of the blog, The Soulful Veganista, went vegan to solve her health issues. She knows from personal experience that going solo can make for a tougher transition. “But when there are other people who look like you and have the same background as you, it makes you feel less alone.”

That was the idea behind chef Veronica Velasquez’s DC Vegan Foodie Nights, a series of sold-out sliding scale dinner pop-ups which she ran for two years starting in 2018. “I decided to focus on making plant-based versions of the food of my foremothers—vegan tamales, wild mushroom asada, oat milk horchata, and melty-cashew cheese pupusas—to share our history, our traditions, and my new traditions,” Velasquez explains of the mission she had with her dinner series. 

In October, Velasquez and fellow chef Doris Quintanilla launched their artisanal vegan cheese company Daughters of Izote. Their plant-based versions of Salvadoran cheese favorites like Cuajada and Quesillo not only honor the womens’ ancestry but are sustainably-crafted. For example, the almonds they use are bee-safe, and the packaging is biodegradable. Their meticulous approach serves to protect animals, Pachamama (a goddess revered by the indigenous peoples of the Andesm and a metaphor for nature), and future generations. This is especially important to Velasquez, a new mom to daughter Jolene, who she joyfully says is, “yasss, being raised vegan!”


Creating Pathways

A common pushback to veganism that Sanders says she hears is, “there’s no way I can pay for all these things that make you vegan.” Yet for a long time, she explains, the opposite had been true. For generations, people from many cultures would eat primarily plant-based because meat was more expensive. “Now we have a situation where there is so much disparity in wealth and opportunity, and veganism is so wrapped up in capitalism and purchasing and buying,” she says. “There are all these products, products, products.” And the latest meat and dairy substitutes can be unaffordable to low-income families.

In counteracting this, Anahata explains that customizing the methods used to guide people towards veganism makes a difference. “Meet people where they are, for real,” she says, stressing that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to her vegan advocacy. She witnessed tangible impact through the in-home fridge consultations and grocery tours she formerly offered, which she says helped “show people what things are plant-based in their local market, and what the ingredients mean.”

Anahata has been making the most of her online presence in recent months, channeling that same spirit of collective healing into her online presence. On her Instagram page, she regularly posts affirmations like I take care of myself because I am my highest priority and offers support and conversation through her Witchy Wednesday Live sessions.

“We could heal ourselves with veganism.”

Providing options that make veganism feel practical and familiar, as well as exciting, is also crucial. Sanders’ worker-owned collective The Greener Kitchen serves plant-based takeout like chicken and waffles and cheesesteak at their deli in Baltimore’s diverse Pigtown neighborhood. They also make inexpensive vegan meats and cheeses in-house so that area residents have access to plant-based foods and “don’t go buy Kraft Singles because that’s what they can afford, and that’s what’s close by,” says Sanders. “I love beans and rice, but the prospect of only being able to afford that for the rest of your life may not appeal to people who are used to having pork chops and chicken wings.” Although the deli side of The Greener Kitchen operation is temporarily closed, their wholesale products are still available through area restaurant partners.

Velasquez agrees that the road to the heart is through the stomach: “I feed them first, and then we talk.” She says that meat is still a status symbol in her community, but letting folks taste the vegan possibilities rather than shoving a prescription, literal or figurative, down their throat can be lifesaving. “It’s wonderful to see people try some of the options we have on the menu and their pleasantly-surprised reactions to the flavors and textures.” Velasquez says she turned to veganism after being diagnosed as prediabetic. “Diabetes is widely spread in the Brown and Black community. We’re dying, our limbs are being cut off. We could heal ourselves with veganism.”

“I love my culture. I love that we gather around food,” adds Carrington, who is passionate about creating a future in which “we keep the things that empower us and shed the things that literally destroy us.

In creating that future, roadblocks from the meat and dairy industries are expected. In February, 2020, several Republican Maryland senators proposed Senate bill 188, which seeks to prohibit labeling like “vegan ribs” or “vegan chicken.” Sanders, who attended the bill hearing, wrote on her Facebook page that the bill would not only punish business owners of color with steep fines and potential prison time but undermine marginalized communities’ access to vegan options, thus creating “even more inequity and racism in our local food systems.”


Fighting Interwoven Forms of Oppression

These four activists reject the notion that human rights activism and animal rights activism are somehow mutually exclusive. “For [members of] my community, when you watch a video of a pig being slaughtered and you hear the screams, perhaps you’ve already seen something like it,” says Carrington, who recognizes that the desensitization of violence that’s historically existed towards Black and Brown bodies is not unlike the normalization of violence committed against nonhuman animals. “In this country, white supremacy and capitalism function as a structure from which most oppression stems, and those systems benefit most from disassociating a life from a body,” says Carrington.

That’s why shining a light on the interlinked systems of exploitation is essential. “Veganism exposes multiple other corrupt industries,” Anahata says. Adds Sanders, “If we’re really about liberation, equity, fairness, righteousness, we can’t continue to ignore the elephant in the room—which is sometimes a literal elephant.”

Velasquez admits that she “didn’t necessarily make the connection between the suffering of animals until I cared about myself.” It was then that she grasped that “we eat the pain and torture embedded in [animals’] flesh.” Anahata is a big believer in making what she calls “soul-care” a priority. It’s the reason she builds her work around providing people of color with opportunities to gather and heal together through practices like yoga and guided meditation. “We’re finally dealing with intergenerational trauma that’s literally in our DNA, and we’re seeing the abuses of systems on people that we thought were normal for so long,” she says. 

And ultimately, to topple all of those systems, it is imperative to “adopt the mindset that all life is worthy, regardless of the value that capitalism or white supremacy has placed on it,” Carrington emphasizes. “All life is worth cherishing.”